What Awards Season Teaches Us About Getting a Film Made

Surviving the wilderness outside the studio system.

 

“If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

In today’s age of the blockbuster, making an independent film is akin to surviving the wilderness like The Revenant‘s Hugh Glass: prepare to eat raw bison liver to overcome epic problems by improvising creative solutions.

Hopefully you won’t find yourself obliged to weather a blizzard in the carcass of a horse, but chances are you’ll come face-to-face with that bear we call financing.

From The Revenant | 20th Century Fox, 2015

From The Revenant | 20th Century Fox, 2015

How can you find the money you need to make your film? It’s a question we discuss often here at Lights.

“It’s hard to get things made,” concedes Charlie Kaufman, the brilliant writer behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 2015’s Anomalisa, for which he received his fourth Academy Award nomination. “If things aren’t perceived as having commercial potential, they don’t come out.” Director John Crowley of Brooklyn adds that “The sweet spot of what used to be adult, character-driven movies is a rare beast these days… People are more comfortable giving you very little money or way too much money.” To quote The LA Times, “the creativity often begins with the financing.”

So the Academy Award-nominated films Brooklyn and Room realized their $11 and $13 million production budgets through a patchwork of film agreements. In the case of Brooklyn, 13 different financing companies were involved, necessitating “daily phone calls with at least 16 people for three months of business prep.” Perhaps most interestingly, Anomalisa got off the ground using Kickstarter, becoming a movie made “beyond the constraints of the studio system that found its way there anyway.”

It’s also found its way to critical acclaim. In fact, several films at this year’s Academy Awards – as well as The Independent Spirit Awards, “the premier awards event for the independent film community” – were the products of lower budgets and innovative approaches.

For reference, let’s round up the Best Picture/Feature nominees at both awards events:

IndieSpiritOscarsBudgets2016780

3 of 8 of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees were made for less than $20 million, which is The Independent Spirit Awards’ eligibility cutoff. That’s almost 40% of the films in the running!

Moreover, The Martian is based on a self-published book; Beasts of No Nation recouped its modest budget via Netflix’s first-ever feature film distribution deal; and Tangerine was shot on an iPhone. It may be difficult to get films made within the traditional studio system, but creative solutions are charting a course through the wilderness of development purgatory.

As independent filmmakers, what can we learn from this?

Well, there is not necessarily a correlation between budget and critical acclaim. Nor is there necessarily a correlation between budget and commercial success, as Deadpool has demonstrated. Observes Indiewire: “You don’t need to spend $200 million on your franchise tentpole to make blockbuster numbers.”

From Deadpool | 20th Century Fox, 2015

From Deadpool | 20th Century Fox, 2015

But you will need to improvise.

You will find yourself in the filmic equivalent of the brutal winter Hugh Glass experienced, walking the line between life and death (of your project). “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you,” Mark Watney warns in The Martian, “and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end”:

Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

You get to make your film.

 Michael Koehler, with


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